From the head to the heart

by | Heart Attacks and Strokes

Stress has been linked to poor physical health, particularly with heart disease. Comparatively less is known, however, about the specific mechanisms that translate stress into events such as heart attacks and strokes.  One area of the brain that has long been a focus of interest with regards to stress and emotions, is the amygdala.

The amygdala is a part of the brain associated with responses like fear, anger, pleasure and stress. Activity in this region is increased in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. This has led to the hypothesis that amygdala activity may provide insight into the development of heart disease.

Researchers tested this theory in two concurrent studies looking at the relationship between resting amygdala metabolic activity, atherosclerotic inflammation (disease of the artery wall) and subsequent heart events.

The second study looked at psychometric measures of perceived stress, resting amygdala metabolic activity and atherosclerotic inflammation. Participants were over the age of 30, didn’t have cancer or had been in remission from cancer for more than a year, and were free of heart disease at the beginning of the study.

In the second study, participants with an increased burden of chronic stress undertook a Perceived Stress Scale and were measure for amygdala activity, C-reactive protein (CPR) and arterial inflammation.

Across the studies, amygdala activity was associated with risk of developing a subsequent heart event. It was also associated with the timing. People with higher resting amygdala activity had heart disease events sooner than people with lower activity. The results also suggested that bone-marrow activity and arterial inflammation played roles in mediating the association between amygdala activity and heart disease events.


In the first study of its kind in human subjects, this study introduces an important insight into another potential mechanism at play in the development of heart disease.

The findings suggest the need to consider stress and its effects in the management of heart disease risk in addition to better-known risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, lack of exercise and unhealthy diets.

Chronic stress is not a healthy or sustainable emotional state and there are evidence. These include exercise, meditation and designated down time from devices like phones and computers.